Saturday, May 5, 2012

Spicy Tagine in the City of Souks-Marrakech

Richly colored and scented mounds of saffron, paprika, and cumin for sale in the souk

The sunset tinges the distant Atlas Mountains a deep rose-red, and the call to prayer echoes from the turret of the Koutoubia Mosque. This is the time for the snake-charmers and henna artists of Jemaa el-Fna square to make way for the food-laden stands of Marrakech’s night food market. Take a stroll around the spectacle before tucking into a traditional Moroccan tagine.

An oasis in every sense of the word, Marrakech was once a beacon for trading caravans that had traveled north through the desert and navigated over the often snowcapped Atlas Mountains. The fabulous palaces and lush palms of the city have always been where sub-Saharan Africa meets Arab North Africa, and even today this market town on the edge of nowhere remains a compellingly exotic port of call.
Life in the medina – the old walled city – revolves around the towering medieval minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque. For many visitors, though, this is eclipsed by the atmospheric Jemaa el-Fna, the nerve center of Marrakech, with its weird and wonderful cast of artists and performers – from water-sellers to fortune-tellers – and spectacular, frenetic food market.
Next head for the ancient souk – a vast area of higgledy-piggledy, cupboard-sized shops and stands filling dozens of narrow alleyways. Delicious smells draw you farther into the endless maze of lanes, where stands are laden with bundles of fresh mint, jars of plump olives infused with lemon and garlic, and bright pyramids of spice. Intricately made leather goods, metalwork, inlaid boxes, brass lanterns, carpets, and jewelry overflow the tables and floor. Slightly less overwhelming are the food and spice markets of the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter; the Place des Ferblantiers, where tinsmiths make and sell their wares, is a relative haven from the hustle and bustle.
Find a rooftop café terrace for a refreshing mint tea – and look for white storks, soaring to their nests on top of the old royal tombs and palaces.
After a day’s sightseeing, shopping, or wandering the souk, there is nothing better than sitting down to enjoy a rich, fragrant tagine – the signature dish of Morocco. This aromatic dish combines meat – usually lamb, sometimes chicken – with fruit (often dried), vegetables, and a heady mix of herbs and spices, including saffron, cumin, coriander, and nutmeg.
The concoction is then braised slowly over a bed of charcoal in its distinctive and eponymous clay pot.
The traditional conical-lidded dish synonymous with tagine – effectively a robust, portable cooking pot and serving dish all in one – originated with the Berber and Tuareg tribes of the Sahara. The use of dried fruits and the emphasis on aromatic spices also stem from this nomadic culture. Marrakech may have smartened itself up a little in recent years for the tourist trade, but its ancient desert heart still beats strong.

The Jemaa el-Fna at night becomes a noisy mass of food stands, suffused with the aromas of kebabs grilling on charcoal braziers

The rich meat stew of tagine is cooked in a distinctive earthenware vessel with a conical lid that releases fragrant aromas when lifted 

A Day in Marrakech
The rich history of Marrakech is reflected in its various quarters. The medina corresponds to the old town, with Jemaa el-Fna, the hub of all activity, at its heart.
Within the ramparts are the souks, the kasbah, and the Mellah.
MORNING : Start at Jemaa el-Fna, the vast square at the heart of the medina, which is as old as Marrakech itself. Just off the square, and dominating Marrakech’s skyline, is the tower of the Koutoubia Mosque. Like most mosques in Morocco, it is closed to non-Muslims, but is an impressive sight nonetheless.
AFTERNOON :  Laid out in the narrow streets north of Jemaa el-Fna are a spectacular array of souks, or bazaars, selling everything from carpets and slippers to magic spells, in which you can while away whole mornings or afternoons. Continue to the city walls that enclose the medina, studded with 20 ornamental gates.
EVENING  : Return to Jemaa el-Fna, which transforms itself at night into a circus, theater, and restaurant, with itinerant musicians and entertainers drawing crowds.
Menara International Airport is 2 miles (4 km) from the downtown. Taxis are readily available.
Hôtel Sherazade (inexpensive) has simple rooms within a riad (traditional Moorish town house).
Tchaikana (moderate) is a beautiful riad within the medina.
La Maison Arabe (expensive) was the first boutique hotel in Marrakech, and offers luxury and comfort.
Place Abdelmoumen Ben Ali (Av Mohammed V).

Best Places to Eat Tagine

Restaurant Al Fassia
Restaurant Al Fassia faces onto a tiny but leafy courtyard and is decorated in warm, earthy colors in a modern Moroccan style. Here, chef Halima Chab and her all-woman team prepare and serve a repertoire of tagines, with up to 13 on the menu at any one time – and all of them supreme examples of the art. They might include tender lamb with caramelized onions and pumpkin, or dates and roasted almonds; chicken with olives and preserved lemons; or kefta (spicy meatballs) with eggs.
Begin your meal with a selection from Al Fassia’s stunning range of meze, which includes a delicious honey- and cinnamonscented squash purée, and finish with Halima Chab’s signature dessert of b’stilla (a filo pastry) with almonds and milk.
Founded over 20 years ago, Al Fassia was once legendary – and loved – for its nononsense service. Since its move to a more upmarket venue in the residential Guéliz district, the atmosphere has become more refined – but the standard of cooking undoubtedly remains one of the high points of any visit to Marrakech.
55 Boulevard Zerktouni, Guéliz, Marrakech; open noon–2:30 PM and 7:30–11 PM daily, except Tue;
Also in Marrakech
To sample a tagine as part of a fine-dining experience, try the elegant and atmospheric La Maison Arabe (; expensive) or the historic La Mamounia hotel (; moderate), with its magnificent terrace on the ground floor and bar and tearoom on the top floor. And for a simple but authentic tagine, as well as a jaw-dropping view over the city, opt for the rooftop tables of popular Chez Chegrouni at 4–6 Jemaa el-Fna (no telephone; inexpensive).
Also in Morocco
Interesting regional variations on the tagine are offered around Morocco. In Fès, try Al Firdaouss (+212 535 634 343; moderate).
This is one of Fès’s most enchanting restaurants and serves a delicious tagine. A short walk away is the traditional Palais Tariana (+212 535 636 604; expensive).
Around the World
London’s Moroccan community first started to arrive in the 1960s. Since then, Moroccan food has become increasingly available and fashionable. Momo, just off Regent Street (; expensive), is London’s most famous and glam Moroccan restaurant, serving high-quality food. Also in central London, Original Tagines (; inexpensive) serves excellent tagines in contemporary Moroccan surrounds.

Cooking Schools

Take more than just a tagine dish home from your trip to Marrakech – there are several great cooking schools in and around the city offering workshops and courses in Moroccan cuisine, and tagine is always on the syllabus.
Kasbah Agafy ( offers outdoor cooking courses in the organic herb and vegetable garden of a beautifully renovated 150-year-old fort, 20 minutes from Marrakech.
La Maison Arabe (see Where to Stay) holds half-day cooking workshops for residents and guests. 
Rhodes School of Cuisine (www. runs week-long courses with luxury riad accommodations.

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